Once again a move by our innovative friends at Amazon.com has prompted me to write a Tech Bytes column. Amazon’s latest interesting venture is the launch of an online marketplace for items created by 3D printer. Currently, the online 3D printed products store includes more than 200 items in categories such as jewelry, toys, home décor and fashion accessories. The new store will feature design templates for product individualization and 3D preview capability.
This is one small step toward what should be a significant disruption of retail, and most other areas of life, by 3D printing technology. I’d like to offer a few general (and highly speculative) thoughts on potential ways 3D printing will disrupt retail.
Giving Consumers Full Control
3D printers allow consumers to create fully functional, three-dimensional products. The level of control consumers already have to dictate product demands to retailers will evolve to something unprecedented. Amazon is already offering design templates, but as the sophistication of both 3D printers and the consumers using them grows, at some point consumers will likely be able to design and print the products they desire from scratch.
This will change the entire definition of “pull” retailing. Retailers will need to become extremely nimble in how they anticipate and respond to the needs of the customer, while internal silos between departments such as marketing and distribution will become untenable. However, 3D printers will not only disrupt the consumer side of the retail equation.
Reinventing the Role of the Retailer
Consumers dictating the exact specifications of the products they want to buy, or perhaps even creating their own unique new products and having them printed out, will reinvent the role of the retailer. Stores will likely become showrooms, with customers sampling model items and then printing goods to meet exact specifications.
On the e-commerce side, near- or real-time fulfillment of online orders will become a possibility. “Smart” 3D printers may allow customers to automatically reorder (or even reprint) goods, bypassing the need for visiting a website or store. The supply chain will also be disrupted, with virtually no need for wholesalers and manufacturers having much more opportunity to directly compete with retailers for consumer sales. Inventory stocks will be dramatically reduced, which should be a positive for retailers’ bottom lines.
Entering the Great Unknown
Of course, 3D printers today are at the same phase in their development as PCs were in the 1970s or mobile phones were in the 1980s, meaning they will undoubtedly be used in ways nobody today could even think of. While presumably some product categories, such as beverages and health/beauty care, would not lend themselves to 3D printing, keep in mind NASA has developed a prototype 3D pizza printer as a convenient means of feeding astronauts in space.
3D printers have also successfully printed materials ranging from human tissue to firearms. It is impossible to say right now exactly how 3D printing will disrupt retail in the next 20, 10, five or even two years, but significant disruption is assured.